Sundance Film Festival Houston

Houstonians gather at the Moonstruck drive-in for the opening night of the Sundance Film Festival. (contributed photo by Michelle Mower)

This year the world’s leading film festival, Sundance, has gone virtual because of COVID-19. Most films will be presented online but there are a few in-person screenings at special satellite locations including Houston.

Nothing beats the experience of seeing a film on a 40-foot screen. So how can you get that movie theater experience safely during a pandemic? That’s easy, Houston’s first and only drive-in movie theater, Moonstruck, nestled in the city’s East Downtown Area (EaDo).

Moonstruck is one of only three Sundance Film Festival satellite screens in Texas and one of the largest locations to see this year’s world premieres as the festival partners with independent cinema communities across the U.S. and around the world. The Houston Cinema Arts Society has partnered this year with the Sundance Film Festival to hold in-person screenings at both Moonstruck and the DeLUXE Theater Pop Up drive-in located in Houston’s 5th Ward Cultural Arts District at 3303 Lyons Avenue.

On Thursday night, Houstonians gathered at the Moonstruck drive-in located at 100 Bringhurst St to watch the Sundance opening-night film “Coda” by director Siân Heder, a touching and joyous family drama about a teenager named Ruby (Emilia Jones) who is the only hearing member of a deaf family. Review link here

While Full Fest Passes are sold out, tickets are still available for screenings tonight through Tuesday, February 2. Each ticket is $30 per carload, good for up to the total number of legal seat belts per vehicle. The Moonstruck drive-in can accommodate 150 vehicles, restrooms and concessions are available. Guest are encouraged to practice social distancing and wear masks when leaving their vehicles.

Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut “Passing” and Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah” are sold out, however, tickets are still available for the following films.

I WAS A SIMPLE MAN (Friday, January 29 – Moonstruck drive-in)The rushing wind on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawai'i, never stops. It constantly rustles the leaves outside Masao’s house, providing a balmy sonic backdrop. Nature is both a driving force and a spiritual indicator in “I Was a Simple Man,” the second feature from writer-director Christopher Makoto Yogi. When Masao is healthy, his plants thrive; when a terminal sickness encroaches, the plants wither and die. The island’s ambient noises—the waves, the wind, the birds—thread through the film’s time-shifting chapters, from the pre-World War II sugar plantations of Oahu to Hawai'i statehood to the present gentrification of Honolulu.

As Masao gets sicker, he is visited by ghosts of his past, including his wife, Grace (Constance Wu), who helps shepherd him into the beyond. Part dream, part family history, I Was a Simple Man feels both achingly intimate and incredibly expansive. The director’s restrained filmmaking grounds the film in Hawaii’s pastoral landscape, while match cuts and surrealistic editing alter time and space, connecting and disrupting past and present and one family’s relationship to their patriarch—and the place they call home.

MAYDAY (Sunday, January 31 – Moonstruck drive-in)An unusual storm is approaching, and it’s about to change everything for Ana (Grace Van Patten). After a short circuit at her workplace mysteriously transports her to an alternate world, she meets a crew of female soldiers caught in an endless war. Along a strange and rugged coastline, men face the stark truth lurking behind damsels who appear to be in distress. Under the leadership of Marsha (Mia Goth), Ana trains as a sharpshooter and discovers a newfound freedom in this uninhibited sisterhood. She soon senses she may not be the ruthless killer they expect, though, and time is running out for her to find a path home.

Unafraid of pushing cinematic boundaries, writer-director Karen Cinorre stylishly blurs genres and draws us into the unique realm of her remarkable debut, where possibilities multiply, and women take control of their own destinies. Both a feminist fever dream and an ambitious reimagining of a war film, Mayday detonates expectations to question where empowerment truly lies—and firmly brands Cinorre as a filmmaker on the rise.

MISS JUNETEENTH (Sunday, January 31 – The DeLUXE Theatre)Turquoise Jones is a single mom who holds down a household, a rebellious teenager, and pretty much everything that goes down at Wayman’s BBQ & Lounge. Turquoise is also a bona fide beauty queen—she was once crowned Miss Juneteenth, a title commemorating the day slaves in Texas were freed – two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Life didn’t turn out as beautifully as the title promised, but Turquoise, determined to right her wrongs, is cultivating her daughter, Kai, to become Miss Juneteenth, even if Kai wants something else.

AMY TAN: UNINTENDED MEMOIR (Tuesday, February 2 – Moonstruck drive-in) Literary titan Amy Tan analyzes her life, her work, and her family—in the present and past tense—in this longitudinal biopic directed by James Redford. As Tan traces her childhood through The Joy Luck Club and her later compositions, she dissects issues of representation, multigenerational trauma, and the stigma and challenge of illness. Forcefully matrilineal in focus, this film moves through generations of Tan’s family, revealing listening as the heart of Tan’s creative practice and contextualizing the patience with which Tan broke through barriers and waited on the other side, welcoming the world to join her.

This, the late James Redford’s final film, epitomizes his filmmaking talent, treading with great empathy into the life story of another and leaving telltale signs of a directorial vision both crystalline and warm. Perfectly implementing the generative listening Tan highlights so deliberately, Redford is responsive and engaged in this dimensional portrait of one of the most important writers in contemporary fiction.

For more information on the Sundance Film Festival in Houston, navigate to the website

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic. 

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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